IF YOU ONLY READ ONE POST ON THIS BLOG, PLEASE READ THIS ONE.
The next day we got up at a reasonable hour, gorged ourselves upon the free “continental” breakfast (which in America basically means donoughts, danish pastries, muffins and waffles) before heading south. The fog was really thick, and so the sights were not as great as they might have been although the waves rolling in off the Pacific looked really amazing. We stopped in the early afternoon to find a place to eat and get online, and then headed south again.
As we were driving through the small town of Bandon I saw what looked like a road-side vigil with a group of men and women standing at the road-side waving large white flags. Then as we rounded the bend there appeared another group, slightly greater in number, waving the stars and stripes. Intruiged, I decided to pull over to go and find out what was happening on the corners of this four-way junction in small-town America.
I approached the group waving white flags first, and was able to see that each flag carried the logo “Veterans for Peace” and a picture of a dove complete with olive branch in beak. I walked over to an elderly couple and introduced myself, explaining that I was on vacation from the UK and asking what was going on. The gentleman was very affable and happy to explain. Apparently everything had begun when the so-called “Women in Black”, a group emulating the movement begun in Israel-Palestine, started a road-side vigil on Friday evenings. As it was only 4.45, the women in black hadn’t get arrived. What – I asked – where these Veterans For Peace doing? The answer, i was told, was to show solidarity with the women in black in opposition to “those guys over there”, pointing to the group waving the stars and stripes. And who are they? I asked. “Well”, came the answer, “we’re the veterans for peace, and so I guess they’re the veterans for war”. I asked what he thought of the war, and the obvious answer from both him and the lady he was with was one of condemnation – but a special kind of condemnation. “We’re veterans, you see, and we believe this war is not doing any good to any body. We want our men and women brought home safely as soon as possible – that’s why we’re the Veterans for Peace”.
This intrigued me, so I asked if it was OK to take a few pictures, to which the Veterans for Peace agreed, and then said that as I wanted to get both sides of the story I thought I should go and see what the so-called “Veterans for War” had to say for themselves.
I must admit, I was expecting the worst. As I walked over I mentally prepared myself by repeatin to myself that I wasn’t in Oxford anymore, and that it was no good getting into a fight with anybody out here because after all nobody is converted at the roadside (well except Saul, but that’s a somewhat special case). And anyway, I told myself, it would be far more productive to simply listen to what these people had to say, not matter how strongly I disagreed with their politics or how unpleasant I might find them. Yet what the so-called “Veterans for War” had to say surprised me.
The first guy I spoke to – who must have seen me speaking to the Veterans for Peace a few moment earlier – was friendly and affable, greeting me with a warm grin and a firm handshake. I asked him what was going on and he told me the following. He said their protest was meant purely as a show of support for American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan – and stressed that it was about the soldiers. Indeed he was keen to say straight away that “we don’t necessarily support the President or the war: what we want is the best for our boys, and by being here we are showing that we support them, and that they are not forgotten”.
Further intrigued, I moved down the line and was introduced to a man named Airlee Owens (the only person, I must confess, whose name I know for sure, because not being a professional journalist I foolishly failed to take notes). Airlee is a great bear of a man, large in stature as well as in heart from what I could tell. Again he shook my hand firmly and greeted my kindly, keen to answer any questions I might have. He told me that although he didn’t start the vigil, he seems to have become the spokesman for the group. “We didn’t start this to support the war necessarily” he said, “we started this because we are all veterans, most of us from Vietnam, and we don’t want the boys in Iraq to suffer the way many people did when they came back from Vietnam. You see, that was an unpopular war, and when the troops came home they were treated very badly: people would spit on them in the street, and the government basically abandoned them. Iraq is an unpopular war, and we don’t want the same thing to happen to the boys out there when they come home. So when we saw the women in black, we knew we had to do something in response. This isn’t – you gotta see – a political protest. It’s about supporting the troops for as long as they are out there”.
I found this fascinating, and asked whether you could really have a non political protest when one side is flying the stars and stripes, and the other flying white flags with doves on them. Airlee’s answer came quickly: “Sure you can. The flag isn’t supposed to be political – it should be a symbol of unity. Don’t get me wront, we are all patriots – we love our country – but we fly the flag because we think it should be used to united all Americans together. It’s a positivel symbol, and one shown by the troops out there as well as by us back home”. This was surprising to hear: there was no branding of the other side as traitors or accusations of being unpatriotic (a charge of great seriousness in the USA) because they weren’t flying the flag – though clearly Airlee must have found it strange that they weren’t.
I noticed that the Women in Black were beginning to assemble on the other side of the road from the so-called – and apparently ill-described – “Veterans for War”. However there was another lone figure, occupying the final side at the four-way junction, standing proudly holding his own flag with signs proudly declaring that “Defeatism Support Al Qaeda” and “Help Prevent A Nuclear 9/11”. OK – I thought to myself – surely this guy is going to be a jingoistic nut-case who I’m going to struggle to remain civil with – but again I was disappointed, albeit much to my relief. I confess I can’t remember for sure, butI think his name was Jim, and like everyone else I’d spoken to so far he was friendly and approachable. I asked why he was standing all alone, and the simple answer was that if the Women in Black and the Veterans for Peace occupied two corners of the function, it seemed right that those supporting the troops ought to have two as well. We chatted briefly about Winston Churchill – Jim being keen to stress his admiration for a man who did not appease the forces of terror (and not leaving the perceived analogy with Iraq to the imagination) – and I got up the courage to propose something to him.
I suggested that after having spoken to people from both sides, I had to admit that it seemed to me like they disagreed about far less than perhaps they thought. I pointed out that both sides supported the troops – indeed, that both sides were composed of veterans and their wives – that neither side was necessarily expressing support for either the war in Iraq or for the Bush administration, and that all of them seemed to want the same thing: the best for ordinary Americans sent to wars in foreign lands. Yet as soon as I said this the shutters came down. Though Jim remained affable to me, his mood visibly changed: “no I don’t think so” he said, “those guys over their are quitters, they want to quit”. I tried to point out that while that was arguably true, in the grand scheme of things it seemed like only one wave of contention amidst a sea of agreement existed; both sides might disagree about how long the troops should be out there, but all professed a desire to support them for as long as they were there. I suggested that maybe a stronger protest could be made by both sides if they perhaps exchanged just one flag each – but Jim found the idea unappealing.
I decided it would be worth paying one last visit to the Veterans for Peace before heading on my way. I approached the couple I had spoken to earlier, and put the same proposition to them about the idea that perhaps both sides had more in common than they supposed. The reaction was basically the same: the shutters came down straight away. When I pointed out that the so-called “Veterans for War” told me that they supported the troops but not necessarily the war or the president, the reply I received was that a poll of troops in Iraq showed them 6-to-1 for Obama not McCain – which was hardly a reply to the suggestion I’d voiced. I tried to point out what Airlee had said to me – that the vigil was about supporting the troops themselves to prevent a repeat of the post-Vietnam experience, to which it was replied dismissively that “the Republican Right has grossly exaggerated the treatement of Vietnam veterans”- a surprising response from somebody who was himself a Veteran. When I voiced my suggesion that the two sides make a stronger protest by exchanging just one flag each I was again met by scepticism. I hadn’t the heart to point out that flying only white flags along the road from a group flying the stars and stripes could hardly be helping the cause of the Veterans for Peace in a country where so much is invested in the flag, and where so many conotations and assumptions are made when either the flag is or is not flown.
Yet what I realised was that here I was seeing a microcosm of American society and politics. These were ordinary men and women standing at the road-side, exercising their political rights with pride. Neither side suggested – despite their clear distaste for the opposition -that only they should be allowed to keep a vigil, and when I said I wanted to talk to all sides this was met with approval and encouragement by all. Which makes the following seem even stranger: neither side talks to the other. They simly don’t know what the other side thinks, because they haven’t asked. They’ve seen the white flags, or the stars and stripes, or the black clothes, and have assumed they know exactly what their opposition thinks and feels. Here at the roadside I saw two groups of veterans, men and their wives with a shared common background, who all professed to want the best for ordinary young men in Iraq, yet who would not even talk to each other. The one difference about whether support for the troops is best shown by calling for immediate withdrawal, or whether that is a decision of politicians and generals whilst hoping to raise public support for ordinary men and women in the meantime, was enough to put these groups on different worlds when standing only 30 meters apart. And they’ve been on different worlds for a long time: this September will mark the 3rd Anniversary of the Friday evening vigils.
I say this is a microcosm of American politics, and I sincerely believe it to be so. I’ve been in the USA nearly two months now, and so many aspects of American politics are manifested at this protest in little Bandon. Both sides sincerely believe in the value of free speech, and of the importance that one can hear both sides of the argument – yet they themselves are happy to hear only their own. The other side is ignored and demonised, yet despite being so close not just physically, but in terms of background and outlook, they will not talk. Rather than hearing what the other side has to say, each would rather go on subscribing to their established pre-conceptions of why they are wholly right and the others are not only wholly wrong, but not even worth trying to engage with. Of course, it is possible that if they talked they would find they perhaps agree or disagree with each each other far more than my brief experience of the two sides was able to reveal. But they won’t talk, and so I cannot say anything more. What I can say is that this reluctance to engage with the opposition appears to be as defining and characteristic a feature of America as the commitment to freedom of speech and political liberty which these ordinary men and women on the roadside expressed to me that day.
Alexis de Tocqueville noted that democratic regimes, and America in particular, appeared to be inherently paradoxical: that for example while democratic peoples are themselves igorant and elect fools, somewhow democracies manage to have and uphold the laws which best serve their peoples (even if said laws are themselves poorly conceived, written and ennacted). I’m sure that the paradox of a population deeply and sincerely committed to freedom of speech, yet equally reluctant to use that freedom in order to engage with others who likewise posses it, would not have surprised Tocqueville at all.
As I was leaving the Women in Black assembled, as you see above. I perhaps should have spoken to them, but I felt like I had enough to think about, so a picture sufficed.
These two pictures are of a special commeorative medal Airlee gave to me:
You can also check out Airlee’s websites, one dedicated to photography (and he’s got some really good pictures), the other to his friends in the Air Force:
Anyway, after all that I went back to the car where i’d left Beth sleeping/reading, and we got some coffee before heading further south, just shy of the California border. I grabbed a couple of nice shots of the sunset after visiting yet another 10-mile long deserted beach, and then we went and ate really cheap but really good steak and got a bit drunk.
An interesting day, all in all.